Ferdinand de Saussure, from Course in General Linguistics
(1915), pp. 111-19, 120-1
That Ferdinand de Saussure is very intelligent is immediately evident upon reading, or trying to read his writing. While the breadth and depth of knowledge he displays is at times humbling and overwhelming, I do realize that Saussure was writing for a very specific, very informed audience. I also recognize that he was creating an essentially new mode of thought, and that he therefore had the rather unenviable but admirable task of figuring out how to express all these new concepts. And, ultimately, his work is comprehensible and, moreover, valuable. However, even given all this, I wonder if some of the specific audience that he was writing for might not have appreciated or at least at times desired a bit of additional clarity and / or simplicity is his writing.
Saussure, to begin with his conclusions, finally asserts that “in language there are only differences [and that] a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms.”
The preceding portions of the essay are spent in service of providing the information, thoughts, concepts, etc. necessary to understand what is meant by that phrase. (I just now briefly considered trying to write the rest of this piece using the terms that Saussure defines in the excerpt, but then reason kicked in again, and I realized that I have nowhere near a good enough grasp on these concepts to successfully pull of such a task.)
The excerpt begins with Saussure defining “the linguistic fact [what is normally referred to as “language”]… as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on both the indefinite plane of jumbled ideas… and the equally vague plane of sounds.” By this, Saussure means several (actually, many) things:
First, that “the linguistic act” (the “complete sign”) is a union between an idea or concept (the “signified”) and a sound (the “signifier”).
Second, that both the signified and the signifier only have meaning as negatively defined as select parts of an “interdependent whole” (in the case of ideas, the nearly unlimited variations and combinations of various thoughts, and in the case of sounds, the more limited palette of phonemes and their almost equally unlimited variety of combinations and distinctions).
To expand, this means that “all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally” so that “the value of just any term is accordingly determined by its environment” so that “… it is understood that the concepts [expressed by words] are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.” That is, that a given word only has a meaning within a given linguistic system (language) insofar as it is distinct from other similar words. Hence, it is the interdependent system, not the individual words, that allow for meaning. Furthermore (and with the possible exception of onomatopoetic words), the sounds used to signify words are completely arbitrary, that is, without an intrinsic relationship to the ideas they represent.
Third, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, which are “both… purely differential and negative when considered separately,” is “a positive fact.” Saussure attempts two metaphors in search for one that adequately explains the nature of the union of the signified and the signifier: a sheet of paper that has a distinct yet inseparable front and back and the wave in liquid that is undeniably a product of both the water and the air that created the disturbance in the water.
Finally, that the complete sign, the combination of the signified and the signifier, “is even the sole type of facts that language has, for maintaining the parallelism between the two classes of differences is the distinctive function of the linguistic institution.” On the most basic level, this means that language’s unique function is as a collectively agreed-upon method of tying together certain arbitrary speech sounds with certain negatively differentiated ideas so that communication can occur. If this seems like a simple conclusion, that is because it, in a sense, is a simple conclusion; however, it belongs to the class of ideas that can be described as “simple in theory but astoundingly complex in application.”